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Memo: Military Accused of Torture in the Drug War in Mexico

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ATTN: Foreign Policy Aides
Date: July 10, 2009

WOLA and LAWGEF would like to bring your attention to the July 9 Washington Post article “Mexico Accused of Torture in the Drug War: Army Using Brutality to Fight Trafficking, Rights Groups Say.” To read the full article, click here.

The article underscores the disturbing trend of the Mexican army carrying out forced disappearances, acts of torture, rape and illegal raids in pursuit of drug traffickers, as documented through interviews with victims, their families, political officials and human rights monitors.  The growing number of military abuses is illustrated by amount of complaints received by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH).  During the first six months of 2009 the CNDH received over 2,000 complaints against the army, a dramatic increase from the 1,231 registered for all of 2008. 

“In Puerto Las Ollas, a mountain village of 50 people in the southern state of Guerrero, residents recounted how soldiers seeking information last month stuck needles under the fingernails of a disabled 37-year-old farmer, jabbed a knife into the back of his 13-year-old nephew, fired on a pastor, and stole food, milk, clothing and medication.

In Tijuana, across the border from San Diego, two dozen policemen who were arrested on drug charges in March alleged that, to extract confessions, soldiers beat them, held plastic bags over their heads until some lost consciousness, strapped their feet to a ceiling while dunking their heads in water and applied electric shocks, according to court documents, letters and interviews with their relatives and defense lawyers.”

Impunity for these abuses remains the norm as Mexico repeatedly fails to hold members of the armed forces who commit human rights violations accountable, undermining efforts to strengthen rule of law, reduce violence and improve public security. A CNDH official notes that “army doctors covered up some torture cases by omitting physical evidence from medical reports before suspects were handed over to civilian authorities.” 

Both WOLA and LAWGEF have called attention to the risks associated with continued deployment of the Mexican military in counter-narcotics and other public security tasks that should rightfully correspond to the civilian police.  However, as noted in this article, the “U.S. government has encouraged and, in part, funded, Calderón’s risky strategy of using the army to fight the cartels…” To build success in the long term, remedies to drug-related violence in Mexico require strong, accountable police forces and civilian institutions and a robust judicial sector―with the support and trust of the civilian population.

In the upcoming weeks, the U.S. State Department will deliver to Congress a report on Mexico’s human rights record, as obligated by requirements included in the first two tranches of U.S. counternarcotics assistance package to Mexico, the “Merida Initiative,” including information on Mexico’s efforts to improve police transparency and accountability, ensure investigations into human rights abuses by the federal police and military, consult with civil society on the implementation of this aid package and enforce the prohibition of testimony obtained through torture.  As noted in the article, approximately $90.7 million―fifteen percent of the counter-narcotics and military funds allocated to Mexico as part of the Merida Initiative’s first two installments―cannot be released until Congress accepts the State Department’s findings.  This is apart from the $24 million subject to the 15% withholding included in the FY09 supplemental appropriations bill that President Obama signed on June 24.

WOLA and LAWGEF strongly urge members of Congress to carefully examine this report and other documentation regarding the lack of accountability for abuses perpetrated by the Mexican army, such as those detailed in this article, when considering release of these funds.